The Meaning of Africa Day

Image: Flickr, PROAndrew Smith
Image: Flickr, PROAndrew Smith

Oh, that sunset on the beach of Sali, south of Dakar... the peace and quiet of the mountains of Lesotho... the beat of Mozambican, Cape Verdean and Angolan music... the taste of Injara in the restaurants of Addis Ababa...

Yes, it is easy to become nostalgic about Africa. It is after all a continent with magical beauty, warm people, age-old, diverse cultures, some of the best music beats in the world and of course, famous wildlife. Yes, we have a lot to be proud of and indeed a lot to celebrate on Africa Day 2008.

Yet I cannot help but ponder what the displaced immigrants in Johannesburg would think if I said, “Let’s celebrate ‘Africa’ Day”. What would a Darfurian or an Eritrean say? Sure, we have a beautiful continent to celebrate, but would a Congolese, a Sahrawi, a Ugandan really care about celebrating Africa’s diversity at a time when they can barely understand what led them to their dire situations?

So far 2008 has not been a great year for Africa. Starting with post-electoral violence in Kenya which claimed the lives of more than 1,000 people, the continent continues to witness violent clashes, notably in Uganda. Increasing food and oil prices have set off confrontations in the streets of Cameroon, Egypt and Nigeria. Elections in Zimbabwe left the country confused about its future. And in South Africa the local population has turned against fellow Africans. We clearly have a lot to be ashamed of too.

Africa Day should not only be a day to celebrate our diversity in the form of diplomatic functions and academic workshops. It should also be a day when we assess our future as a continent. For starters we should reflect on ways to create development-oriented governance systems. We have moved a step forward with the implementation of the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), Africa’s governance evaluation scheme, but even that effort raises important questions.

Recommendations put forward by the APRM’s Panel of Eminent Persons, notably in Kenya, were not taken seriously despite warnings that the country would drift into chaos should a range of issues not be addressed. Similar warnings were given to South Africa with respect to xenophobia. Alas, the warnings were dismissed by governments as exaggerations. Why make recommendations if governments will not act on them? Who will finally learn to listen?

The future of the APRM administration is also cause for concern. A change of leadership within the Panel of Eminent Persons, in compliance with the core documents of the APRM, was due to be implemented, at least partially, between January and June of this year. But as the forthcoming AU summit in Egypt looms at the end of June, there is still no clarity about who will retire from the panel, leading one to ask how the programme can take the lead in establishing accountable and transparent systems of governance.

How can countries be expected to pay an annual contribution of U.S. $100,000 to sustain the APRM when levels of accountability are so questionable? What do Africans have to do to get a leadership that genuinely thinks of the continent’s future?

Our systems of governance are not only questionable at the continental level. Dictators still flourish, albeit to a lesser extent than in the past. When Cameroon’s Paul Biya, in power since 1982, or Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, who has led his country since 1980, refuse to leave their fantasy worlds, one cannot help but ask how a democratic order can be established. We struggle to find answers, but these are the questions we must ask ourselves when we “celebrate” Africa.

As an African I ask: we celebrate our culture, but do we think of ways to preserve it? We celebrate our people, but do we know how we will save them from wars and poverty? We celebrate our natural wealth, but do we think of ways to allow our people to benefit equally from it? We celebrate our youth, but do we think of ways to satisfy them so that they don’t board boats and cross seas only to come back in coffins? We celebrate the beauty of our wilderness and nature but do we know how we will save it from climate change?

All these questions could be answered had we only had a responsive system of governance!